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First glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Huma Zaidi.
When President Bush takes the podium this evening, he will face an American public that is, for the most part, dubious of his ability to accomplish anything for the remainder of his presidency and resigned to what he considers an unacceptable conclusion to the war in Iraq, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Tonight will mark Bush's sixth State of the Union address and his first to come on the heels of a losing election, as will be evidenced by the majority-Democrat audience in the chamber.  In acknowledgement of the role the Iraq war played in those November losses and resistance from lawmakers on both sides, Bush isn't expected to talk at length about his plan to send more US troops to the region.  Instead, he will focus on domestic issues with bipartisan appeal, proposing -- or re-proposing -- ways to provide more Americans with health insurance, combat global warming and illegal immigration, and improve education. 

Just yesterday, senior GOP Sen. John Warner introduced his own bipartisan, non-binding resolution opposing Bush's plan to increase troops in Iraq.  NBC's Ken Strickland notes that while Warner's version doesn't use the word "escalate," it still "disagrees with the 'plan' to augment our forces by 21,500."  Also yesterday, House Republicans announced their desire to form a select committee "to oversee the implementation of benchmarks" to be met by the Iraqis themselves, one top House GOP aide told NBC's Mike Viqueira.

And Warner's Virginia colleague Jim Webb, who will deliver the Democratic response tonight and whose son is serving in Iraq, told reporters yesterday that Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq is more like "flailing around" than coming up with a real strategy.  Webb's son's unit has had its service extended 60-90 days, making him a part of the Administration's "surge."

NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R) says that people will always be interested in hearing new ideas from the President, but that he sees "little capacity for movement on his major policy initiatives" in the poll, especially on Iraq.  A majority of the public, 55%, think Bush's plan to increase the number of troops will make very little or no difference in securing Iraq against the ongoing violence.  The survey was taken from January 17-20 of 1,007 adults.

The poll also shows deep public skepticism and resignation about the outcome of the war.  Two-thirds think that the United States will eventually have to withdraw from Iraq and leave it without a stable democratic government, while 27% think the United States and a stable democracy will prevail.  And a plurality of 40% say the most acceptable outcome in Iraq would be if most US troops leave within a year.  Just 23% agree with Bush's position that the most acceptable outcome is if there's an increase in US troops now, and if US troops leave only after Iraq becomes a stable democracy, however long that takes. 

Americans' displeasure with Bush's approach to the war also seems to be manifesting itself in a growing perception that he's obstinate and unwilling to listen.  Over the course of his presidency, he has seen sharp drops in the public's view of his willingness to work with people who viewpoints differ from his own, and his willingness to work with Congress to get results.  Fifty percent think he will be too inflexible in dealing with the new Democrat-run Congress; 37% think he will strike the right balance.  In January 1995, after then-President Clinton and his party took a drubbing in the 1994 midterm elections, just 17% said they thought that Clinton would be too inflexible in dealing with the Republican Congress, while 55% said he would strike the right balance. 

Bush "has the defects of his qualities," says McInturff.  He has a "terrific ability to stick with what he believes, have enormous focus, and try to accomplish big goals," but the flip side of that coin is a public perception that "he doesn't listen and he won't change."  McInturff suggests that "people had already come to that conclusion," and that "Iraq solidified that notion."  He points out that the comparably low percentage of people who thought Clinton would be inflexible in dealing with the Republican Congress in early 1995 wasn't entirely positive for Clinton because it reflected the view that Clinton "couldn't be trusted with his positions."

Overall, the poll shows that the President is "really in the cellar of public opinion at this stage," says pollster Peter Hart (D).  "If we had a British parliamentary system, there would be a public call for a vote of 'no confidence,' because that's essentially what this poll is."  Two-thirds of those surveyed say that Bush is facing a longer-term setback from which things are unlikely to get better for him; 25% say he's facing a short-term setback, and only 7% see him as not facing setback at all.  Seventy-two percent have little or no confidence that he "has the right set of goals and policies to be president," and two-thirds of those surveyed have little to no confidence that he "has the right set of personal characteristics to be president." 

Bush's job approval rating is 35%, one point off his all-time low in this survey.  For more, see here.